It’s our fault. We have no one to blame but ourselves.

We unknowing pigeonhole student thinking with the manipulatives we use. Take fraction tiles for example. Much to my disappointment, they come with labels and it kills me.


Manipulatives that come pre-labelled ruin everything I want from a lesson. Sure you can flip them over but the label on the backside keeps rearing its ugly face and traps lots of student thinking.

Sure there’s Cuisneaire Rods but most teachers don’t have $200 to fork out for a class set. But I think it’s fair to say that most teachers would fork out $4 for some fine steel wool.

Presto! Fraction-Cuisen-Part-Whole-Tiles!

As I finish up planning for my Grassroots Workshop in Anaheim next month, I can’t help but think how faceless manipulatives help us guide students through the progression of learning because of how they can be flexibly used.

When we label items we avoid lots of opportunities to listen and build on student intuition. This was something I took away from Tracy’s most recent post. Tracy helped me see that I need to provide students with more opportunities to play and explore…WITHOUT INTERFERING.

I think this gives them a much better chance.

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What the value of the orange? It sure isn’t a third.

With that being said, even when we do get our hands on unlabelled manipulatives we usually assign the same value to each piece…every time.

Pattern blocks are a perfect example. Most of the time we assign the hexagon a value of a whole. This creates a false sense of understanding which is really hard to unmask.


Where’s my head at right now?

I’m continually seeking ways to undo student learning and identify what understanding they truly own. In order to do that, I need to be sure I’m not “pigeon-wholing” student thinking.

Question: Where else in mathematics do we pigeonhole student thinking? This can be within our instruction OR through the use of manipulatives.  

Please share your thoughts below.

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